The American women are off to a roaring start in the 2016 Olympics soccer tournament, but when the men's soccer tournament begins today, the USA will not be there. The U.S. failed to qualify after losing a two-leg playoff against Colombia earlier this year.
For fans who want to root for the USA, it's a disappointment. But when it comes to the future of American soccer, does it actually matter that the men aren't in Brazil? Well, that depends on how you look at it.
Unlike on the women's side where the tournament includes full national teams, Olympic soccer for the men is mostly a youth tournament for players age 23 and younger. Many countries around the world don't worry all that much about winning an Olympics on the men's side. But to not even compete in the tournament is another matter.
Missing an Olympics is hardly the disaster that missing a World Cup would be, but it's still a wasted opportunity to give U-23 players experience they won't otherwise gain. Alexi Lalas, a former U.S. national team defender who played in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, told FOX Soccer the value of the Olympics is not so much in the games themselves but in the tournament environment that can't be replicated.
"You learn the way to play in a tournament," he said. "The way you play in a tournament is very different than the way you play one-off friendlies and certainly in a club situation. It is a unique and specific type of skill. That's part of why Germany is so good -- yes, they're good at soccer in general, but they're also very good at tournament play."
But it's difficult to know how much missing out on that experience affects the youth national team program as a whole.
Of the 20 players who were part of the U-23 roster that failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, none have become regular members of the senior national team. Players like Mix Diskerud, Juan Agudelo and Terrence Boyd have been the closest to becoming staples, but none have really stuck. The 2008 roster that got knocked out in the group stage has its share of players who fell by the wayside too, but it also includes the likes of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Brad Guzan, who seemed to thrive after the Olympics and have ended up as vital pieces for the U.S. senior team.
It's a chicken-or-egg sort of question -- did the 2008 Olympics help them turn into key senior team players, or were already destined for the senior national team, which is why they helped carry their team through Olympic qualifying? Stu Holden, who was a member of that 2008 team and played for the senior team until injuries ended his career, was another player who thrived after the Olympics -- and he gives credit to the experience.
"It's hugely damaging [for the U.S. to miss the Olympics]. Having been a part of one, I knew how instrumental that was for my development as a player," Holden said recently. "All these players are missing out on yet another major tournament."
Of course, what probably stung the most when the American U-23s failed to qualify was what it signified: The U.S. failed to qualify for the men's tournament in consecutive Olympics for the first time in nearly 50 years. It felt like a backward slide away from progress.
But was it really? Success on the youth level certainly doesn't always translate to success after those players graduate to the senior national team. For the senior national team, the goal is always clear: win a World Cup or get as close as possible. But it's a bit more nuanced on the youth level, where players are being developed and identified for a place on the senior national team. In that sense, failure doesn't always mean the same thing for prospective Olympic teams as it does at the highest level.
"We don't necessary know what the marching orders are," Lalas said. "I'd want those players knowing that it's not just about winning, it's about your development and the value you are going to bring to the senior national team, but I don't know if that's what the message is from coaching staff. So, sometimes it's hard for us to judge." (Caleb Porter and Bruce Arena, two former U.S. Olympic coaches who now coach in MLS, both declined to comment for this article.)
What is clear, though, is that Jurgen Klinsmann has made qualifying for the Olympics a priority and the U.S. failed. Klinsmann is not only the coach of the senior national team, but the technical director who helps oversee youth development. Given the emphasis he has placed on the Olympics, clearly he sees value in the U.S. competing such a tournament.
So, while it probably isn't a devastating calamity that the USA won't be competing in the men's soccer tournament today, it's also not what anyone would've preferred. The Olympics represents valuable experience that probably impacts some players more than others. How much it will hurt player development for those missing out is a question that probably won't be possible to answer for a few more years.
In the meantime, fans can always watch the women's tournament, where the Americans are favorites to win gold.
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